Meditation 411

May 26, 2015 Atlanta, Georgia, USA   In this series, Getting What You Want: Directing The Mind To Desired Ends, we will examine applying meditation techniques to train the mind and get better results. For this discussion to make sense, there should be a number of assumptions at the outset:   Our mental and emotional states affect our playing deeply. It is possible, with practice, to direct our mental and emotional states. Rules that apply to physical technique can be used for mental and emotional technique too. These rules can often appear illogical, contradictory, or counterintuitive. In each case, there will be ample anecdotal evidence that said technique does actually work.   What IS Meditation?   What, exactly, is meditation? Well, one could define it as the progressive refinement of conscious awareness. Its’ progression moves from merely calming the mind to improving focus, eventually developing one-pointed concentration, and ultimately, a state of such stillness, clarity, and bliss that it is sometimes called Nirvana. It is reportedly a state in which the meditator fully realizes the interconnectedness of all things.   While these lofty goals require a prodigious amount of effort and discipline, even the beginning stages of meditation practice can yield beneficial results you can use, and that’s what we’ll focus on here. Not to mention, let’s face it, my meditation practice is by these standards quite un-advanced, and some of these advanced practices I’m just not qualified to discuss (or instruct).   Where to start?   Okay, this I can help with. As we do this, remember: just as many techniques in drumming require slow diligent practice for...

Playing The First Bar

I remember watching Dave Weckl’s video, Back To Basics (or was it The Next Step?) and he talked about counting in a song: he suggested singing the song in your head to get the tempo, and then play a bar or two by clicking your sticks or whatever. I’m badly paraphrasing here, but this always stuck with me, and is in fact a great way to start a song, though it takes a bit of practice to learn to do it quickly. This is an important skill, so let’s explore it a little further… My approach to this concept could be stated as: “play the first bar without using your kit.” In this context, the first bar is something you’ve added, a moment or two to get locked in to the correct tempo, so you’re already feeling and playing the right tempo before the sticks touch the kit. To do this, you first need to HEAR the correct tempo, then FEEL it. It’s pretty simple but both steps are crucial. Let’s tackle hearing the correct tempo first. There are some different ways to approach this: 1.) Using a metronome Pretty obvious, right? Really a great way to eliminate the guesswork. Make a “crib sheet” with tempo markings for the songs in your set. At the beginning of each number, listen to a bar or two of time, and you’re off! The tricky part is making this process happen quickly: it takes a second to read the notes, set the metronome, listen, and count in the band. Apps like Metronome by Frozen Ape allow you to make auto-advance setlists, so you...
The Essence of Feel, Part 2

The Essence of Feel, Part 2

In part 1, we looked at ways to help ‘improve’ a musician’s feel or groove, but in this segment I’d like to explore what it is we are talking about here, and how to make ourselves more sensitive to it. Again, I’d like to stress that this is a very subjective topic, and that leads us to our starting point: personal preference. You can’t help what you like, can you? Interesting question. I think honesty and self-inquiry are very useful here, as in all deep art: somewhere it’s about learning who you really are; who you are underneath all the influences of your mind and the world around you. If you get that deep, then sure, you can’t help what you like. But it’s a very fun and interesting question to ask yourself. If you can isolate influences and identify them, without self-judgement, it can be fun deciding what to keep and what to throw out. It can be delightfully arbitrary, with the exception of putting each to the test: does this influence help you grow? Does it contribute to your happiness and satisfaction as an artist? If yes, then keep it. If not, think about letting it go. That said, you can come to some very primal influences that, for whatever reason, you feel you want to stick with. These you can begin to consciously apply to your craft, without regret. Who cares if you don’t know why you love the way Ndugu plays the groove from Billie Jean? If you don’t, then indulge it. Seek the emotional response in it and roll around. Now, this ‘emotional response’...

The Gift of Bhakti

In the time I’ve practiced yoga, I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to many unexpected things. Strangely enough, the most unexpected was a glimpse of my own divine nature. I think somewhere I did expect to uncover and face my demons, as it were, but what I did not expect was to discover evidence that I am, at my core, a holy and divine being. While I’d always heard this was true of each of us, the thought of a direct personal experience of this fact never occurred to me. The realization of this truth, like many of the most powerful truths of my life, dawned on me slowly, over time, as the sheer weight of experience powerfully confirmed this truth again and again. Although this was largely due to the grace and hard work of my teachers, I did, despite my efforts to the contrary, learn to use some of the tools they’d taught me. They’ve been so useful and effective; it would be much more accurate to describe them as wonderful gifts. One of the most effective of these gifts was bhakti — the path of love and devotion. I realize that to some, describing “love and devotion” as tools or gifts to be used for one’s personal benefit may sound vague (or even callous). How does one “use” love and devotion? In that context, it does sound rather self-serving, and maybe it is, but not in the way you’d expect. Let me explain. In yoga, there are many paths. Each of these has a primary focus, or method, of reaching the goal of yoga; the union,...

The Essence of Feel, Part 1

  Groove, pocket, feel… as musicians, we regularly use these terms to describe that certain something that we call by these names. How well can we really define this quality? What is it about it that we really respond to? Is it universal, or as individual as each of us? Over the years, as I work to refine my own playing, I find that I end up coming back to questions like these again and again. Essentially, I keep asking the question, ‘what IS feel, and how can I improve my own?’ While I feel the answer is ultimately a very personal one, talking with other musicians about the ways they think about feel has helped me ask myself more productive questions. Timing With respect to drumming, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Good feel starts with great timekeeping, it’s true. However, there are some ‘sub-categories’ here that often get overlooked. For example, is each voice you play (hi-hat, snare, kick, etc.) keeping equally good time? Sometimes simple straight eighth-note patterns don’t get the attention they deserve because they’re simple, or maybe a certain syncopated bass drum pattern will cause the hi-hat and snare to drift slightly – there goes the groove! For these type of things, my teacher and I have used ‘fatback’ exercises from Gary Chaffee’s Patterns to great effect. The keys here are two: repetition; we’ll practice it from 40 bpm to the limit of our chops, in increments of 5 (or 1 if it’s difficult.) The other key is commitment; play each and every exercise as if you were playing it in the studio....